on the omnipresent brand
I met Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries when I was making a piece for Portikus in Frankfurt, and I decided that making a show about Samsung would make sense. Partly because I was looking at the culture of technology companies at the time, and partly since Samsung had an amazing kind of keystone event that was framed around Frankfurt—the Frankfurt Declaration of 1993, a meeting of investors and executives that sort of serves as the origin story for the huge corporation they are today.
I began by reaching out to other artists, particularly in South Korea, who kind of had processed Samsung in another way, because I wanted context on what I was trying to do. And they came up immediately. I was quite struck by the piece and wanted to reach out to them. So Sophie von Olfers just cold called them on email, and we had an exchange.
I felt like they were performing and a kind of persona, but they gave me really great information and were very friendly. They obviously had processed the Samsung thing quite a lot. Even when I was talking to them in 2014 it was kind of like older work for them—Samsung was made in 1999.
Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, Samsung (1999). Installation view from The C(h)roma Show, Bangalore, 2014.
They seemed to have a very particular relationship with Samsung, and had not the easiest interactions. Which was interesting, because later I also had not also the easiest interactions with the company—in the end, they ended up writing me a letter saying, “Please don’t make this exhibition.”
From my perspective, Samsung was just a global giant that was growing only in importance because it was manufacturing a lot, including components in iPhones at that point, televisions, and screens. It was just omnipresent in that space. It was kind of de-contextualized, I guess, from the side of production. But the more that I looked into it and talked to people like YHCHI, the more I realized how deeply it permeated the culture of Korea.
You read stories of the possibility of only interacting with Samsung as a brand. They not only do electronics, but also construction and hospitals. There are Samsung hospitals, and you can then die in the hospital and then be buried in a Samsung casket. And they also touch pop culture, through investments in K-Pop and stuff like that as well.
As I researched the 1993 moment surrounding the Frankfurt Declaration, I also delved into the relics from that period. One of the most interesting things was this comic that Samsung did in 1993 with a very prominent comic artist of the time named Lee Won Bok. He had produced this kind of story of why they needed to change their management strategy. It was not only meant for speaking to people within the company, which was obviously huge, but was also on sale in general bookstores. So it had a wider cultural importance, a kind of popularity beyond the company.
Comic by Lee Won Bok, Let’s Change Ourselves First, published by Samsung Economic Research Institute (1995). Adapted by Simon Denny for “New Management” (2014).
Later I came into contact with an academic who is preparing an important book on Samsung, and he came across the project that I did. This comic is in there—I had it translated, and had parts of it reproduced it in the show and catalogue. He said that it contained so much cultural information that just simply wasn’t available to outsiders.
That’s true to what I found about this comic too. It was full of amazing snapshots of an attitude of that time. There’s various little snippets of that comic which has Samsung competing against Sony, Panasonic, Phillips, LG.
Lee Won Bok, Let’s Change Ourselves First, published by Samsung Economic Research Institute (1995).
It reminds me of something that YHCHI told me while we were looking at a piece of theirs in a museum in South Korea. From their perspective, South Korea’s always kind of jealous of Japan. They were like, “Yeah, so Korea always wants to have something as iconic as sushi.” That would go around the world as a cultural product or whatever. But it never gets it. And bibimbap is never going to be sushi.
That comes across in the comic, and in the narrative in Samsung’s new management text as well—that Samsung’s always kind of looking towards Sony, and other competitors from Japan, that kind of prefigured them in global tech. There were all these phrases about changing and accelerating or becoming immediately obsolete. And there was kind of a level of urgency to that.
One part of the comic, one of the frames which I stole and used in my work, is this image of a figure from the comic, like, standing in front of a tree, saying, like, “A company is an everlasting space.” That like, “People may come or go. Our mortal souls may die but the company continues.”
And I felt like that was again, that was... pretty much a Heavy Industries piece.
As told to Michael Connor.
Top image: Simon Denny, installation shot from “New Management,” Portikus, Frankfurt, 2014. Credit: Helena Schlichtling.